A question or an obsession; how do I write a strong opening chapter? How do I hook the reader and keep them turning the page? I spend more time on opening chapters than anything else. Here’s my compilation of tips from writers and coaches from the last three years.
1. The opening as a short story
The opening chapter has a lot of work to do: genre setup, character introductions, outlining the Initial Problem, setting the tone, laying out the promises of the story to come. It better be brief, coherent and engaging.
One method is treat your first chapter as a very open-ended short story. The short-story form efficiently launches into character, dilemma, setting and plot with no waste. The short story tells us every important thing we need to know about character, both internally and contextually. An opening chapter can do the same job in 2000-4000 words.
If we treat the opening chapter as a short story, we can apply the MICE Quotient:
How many story elements can you include in chapter one? Do they adequately brief the whole story? What’s your word budget?
Think of Page One as an open-ended short story. More on that in the future.
Show us the characters, their emotional state and something of their dilemma or opening problem. The world-building, setting or environment matter only as far as they influence character. You can hint at the larger world and the Big Picture plot to come later. Readers keep reading for relatable characters.
3. Create empathy
Make us care. Nobody cares about anything that happens in the plot unless we are engaged with characters at the centre of it. For that, we need a main character who is relatable and empathetic. They can be a hero, anti-hero or an ordinary Joe/Jane. They don’t have to be likeable from the get-go. Give the reader someone compelling, even if they appear to be a villain like Ebenezer Scrooge. Lizzie Bennett has wit, wisdom and plenty of nineteenth-century sass to go with her moral dilemma about marriage.
4. Set out the stakes.
Once we know who the characters are, we have to understand the stakes; what do they have to win or lose in the course of the story? It doesn’t have to be life or death. The Bennett girls have no inheritance if Mr Bennett dies; financially sound marriages are vital.
5. Character voice.
Establish character voice at the beginning. The big draw of Catcher in the Rye is Holden Caulfield’s character voice. Regardless of point of view, a distinctive character is engaging and memorable. It can be rebellious, pompous, witty, gentle, laconic, sarcastic; just make it distinct. Bland is a writing sin.
6. Enter late.
Common advice is enter late, leave early. Readers have a low attention span. They won’t stick around through a chapter of waking up, getting dressed, brushing teeth and eating breakfast. Cut the mundane and the boring. Throw a grenade on page one. Boom. In Pride and Prejudice, there’s no Ordinary World. Within a few pages we get news of the rich tenant moving into Netherfield.
There’s little room for backstory at the beginning; hints and clues at most. It’s not a time for long digressions and flashbacks. All of that can come later, after you engage the reader.
7. Flirt with the reader.
Austen’s opening line is one of the greatest flirtations with the reader in literature.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
This has wit, satire, elegant construction, humour and a hint of the conflict or stakes to come. It sets the tone for Lizzie Bennett’s character voice and outlines the central theme of the novel.
8. Don’t lie.
The opening chapter has to declare the story type and genre. The novel has to deliver on on the title and blurb. See Sanderson’s Promises, Progress and Payoffs. Sanderson describes a novel that opened as a cliched fantasy and pivoted half way to subvert what went before. Most readers didn’t reach the ingenious pivot to catch the joke. Those genre fans who stuck with it hated the undercut. Lying to the reader in the opening then hitting them with a huge genre twist down the line is a gamble likely to fail.
9. Show Proactivity.
The character has to come alive on page one. The opening chapter has to show characters in motion, doing something interesting from the start. Passive characters have to express dissatisfaction or yearn for change in the ordinary world setup. Ideally it opens with them pursuing a goal and meeting obstacles; best of all, on page one.
10. Don’t delay the opening hook.
Time was, the opening hook appeared three or four chapters in. Not any more. The hook has to appear in chapter one. I’d say the opening hook for Pride and Prejudice is the new tenant of Netherfield. In Star Wars (not a book, I know) it’s Leia sending the Death Star plans with the two droids. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow receives orders to track down Kurtz. Conrad’s novella has a low word budget and jumps straight into the plot.
11. Minimise detail
The opening chapter mustn’t overwhelm the reader with too much plot, too many characters or too much world building. What’s important and necessary at the start. Tease and defer everything else. There’s plenty of room in the next hundred thousand words.
Austen walks a tightrope in the opening chapter of Pride and Prejudice. Two parents, five sisters, the Inheritance Problem, the Netherfield Tenant, social mores and the Marriage Challenge. That’s a lot to include. We get minimal detail about any of it, but lots of hints of what comes later.
12. Be specific, be original.
Lay out your Initial Promises and make them good ones. In a world of flat-pack, cookie-cutter romance, thriller, action, fantasy and mystery, the opening has to say something distinctive and compelling.
At a time where every story already exists, originality is in short supply. What makes this story unique and worth reading? A different take? A new genre mix? A compelling voice, character, opening problem? Philip Reeve’s The Mortal Engines begins with cities on wheels, a distinct take on dystopian Y-A, Mad Max, steampunk adventure. Okay, it turns into Star Wars at the end, but the opening setup is brilliant.
Not Rules but Guidelines
I haven’t mentioned prologues, flashbacks and time-skips for the opening. These are all tricky ways to begin and break all kinds of rules outlined previously. Three of my stories use flash-forwards; another minefield.
These are all guidelines or principles. Some are contradictory. How do you reconcile ‘minimise detail’ and ‘be specific?’
I assert you can learn from them and from examples, but no one can teach you to apply them. You have to sit down and write. That’s what’s taking me so long.